How to Identify Points for the ASVAB Reading Comprehension Subtest

By Rod Powers

When someone writes something, he’s almost always trying to make a point. This message is called the main point or principal idea of the writing. The paragraph or passage may also contain information that supports or reinforces the main point; these little gems are called subpoints.

Pick out the main point

The main point is the most important part of a paragraph or passage. It’s the primary theme that the writer wants you to understand. In many cases, the writer states the main point simply. In other cases, the writer may imply the main point rather than state it directly.

Quite often, the main point of a paragraph or passage is contained in the first sentence. You may recall from school that your English teacher referred to this sentence as the topic sentence. Sometimes a writer also rephrases or summarizes the main point in the passage’s last sentence.

In the following passage, the main idea is stated in the first sentence:

U.S. military forces will increasingly be called upon in the immediate future for peaceful military-to-military contacts, humanitarian intervention, peace support, and other nontraditional roles. The end of the Cold War transformed U.S. national security. The United States entered the 21st century with unprecedented prosperity and opportunities threatened by complex dangers.

Problems associated with fostering a stable global system require the U.S. military to play an essential role in building coalitions and shaping the international environment in ways that protect and promote U.S. interests.

The main point is stated clearly in the very first sentence: “U.S. military forces will increasingly be called upon in the immediate future for peaceful military-to-military contacts, humanitarian intervention, peace support, and other nontraditional roles.” The sentences that follow are subpoints that help clarify and emphasize the paragraph’s main point.

Sometimes the main point isn’t in the first sentence. Look at the passage again, slightly reworded:

The end of the Cold War transformed U.S. national security. The United States entered the 21st century with unprecedented prosperity and opportunities threatened by complex dangers. Problems associated with fostering a stable global system require the U.S. military to play an essential role in building coalitions and shaping the international environment in ways that protect and promote U.S. interests.

A key assumption is that U.S. military forces will increasingly be called upon for peaceful military-to-military contacts, humanitarian intervention, peace support, and other nontraditional roles.

The paragraph’s main point remains the same, but it isn’t stated until the last sentence.

Sometimes the main point isn’t clearly stated but rather implied. Take a look at the following paragraph:

The plane landed at 9 p.m. The children were disappointed that new security rules prevented them from meeting their father at the gate. They waited with their mother in the car outside the airport doors, amidst dozens of other people in vehicles, there for similar purposes. With each passing moment, their excitement grew. Finally, the automatic doors opened, and he walked out. “Dad! Hey, Dad!” the excited children yelled.

Though it’s not directly stated, the main point of this paragraph is obviously that the children’s father is coming home.

Take another look at the preceding passage. When trying to determine the main point of a paragraph, ask yourself the following:

  • Who or what is this paragraph about? A father returning to his family.

  • What aspect of this subject is the author talking about? The moments before and the moment of the father’s appearing at the airport doors.

  • What is the author trying to get across about this aspect of the subject? The drama of the father’s reunion with his family.

Subpoints

Most writers don’t stick to just one point. If they did, most paragraphs could be reduced to just one sentence. But it doesn’t work that way. Writers usually try to reinforce their main points by providing details. These subpoints may include facts, statistics, or descriptions that support the passage’s main point. Subpoints help you see what the author is saying. Take, for instance, the following passage:

For the purposes of drill, Air Force organizations are divided into elements, flights, squadrons, groups, and wings. The “rule of two” applies (that is, an element must consist of at least two people, a flight must consist of at least two elements, and so on).

Usually, an element consists of between eight and ten people, and a flight has six or eight elements. Drill consists of certain movements by which the flight or squadron is moved in an orderly manner from one formation to another or from one place to another.

Notice how the writer uses the second, third, and fourth sentences to explain in detail how Air Force organizations are divided for the purposes of drill. These supporting details are subpoints.

Look for signal words in the passage — words like again, also, as well as, furthermore, moreover, and significantly. These signal words may call your attention to supporting facts.